Observing the furor on the web and in the newspapers during the past week over the attempt by members of the U.S. Congress to pass legislation aimed at cracking down on Internet Piracy (SOPA), it is clear that large numbers of people support the irresponsible positions of the Internet heavyweights, such as YouTube, Google, and Wikipedia. It seems as if everyone has gotten used to the idea of having immediate access to anyone's work for free.
Most of the ire over this proposed bill has been directed at the recording industry and Hollywood—the perceived "fat cats" who have been getting filthy rich, without deserving it. But it is not only these large corporations who are being hurt by the present situation of mob rule on the web. It is also individual authors, book publishers (especially academic publishers)—and any person who attempts to engage in the production of any significant amount of responsible content directly on the web.
I have been active in web publication since the advent of the Web in 1995, hosting an extensive site of scholarly resources (http://www.acmuller.net), highly acclaimed by members of my field. I also teach new media, Internet, web programming, etc., at the University of Tokyo.
The content on my web site is regularly copied in large quantities and set up on other sites without my knowledge or permission—and most of the time, with no reference to the original source of the materials. Due to a lack of strict international rules to prevent such practices, there is usually nothing I can do about this legally. And since the arrival of Wikipedia, I have had continuous problems with Wikipedia writers copying material from my online reference works without citation. When I have written to Wikipedia about it, they treat me like an insect. They tell me:
(1) Under the third-party rule, Wikipedia has no legal responsibility for anything copied to its pages.
(2) It is up to me to track down and engage in discussions with the quagmire of anonymous editors of each problematic Wikipedia page about any infraction.
But as a busy scholar, I certainly cannot take the time and energy to police the Wikipedia articles in my field and track down sloppy or dishonest writers. And the government will not put pressure on Wikipedia, et al., to take responsibility, so individuals like myself have little recourse but to surrender.
For the "end-users" (—the "99%") who simply want access to as much data as possible, and who want that data here and now, without restrictions, it doesn't matter whose work is copied to what site and made available for free. And it doesn't matter to Wikipedia, Google, YouTube, and so forth where the data on their site comes from or to whom it originally belonged. Nor does it matter to them who made the effort to collect, digitize, edit, and publish the data on the web.
As we have seen, the mobs of freeloaders are going to scream at any hint of setting down some basic rules regarding intellectual privacy. All they want to be able to do is take, take, take, without paying or offering anything in return. And Google, YouTube, Wikipedia and their ilk capitalize on this mob mentality.
I just published a new book this month. Before it had been released for two weeks, there were PDFs all over the internet, freely downloadable. And quite often, I find that such PDFs are being distributed by my own colleagues. Many of my colleagues tell me "too bad, that's the way it has to be with the new web."
But I say: It can't work in the long run. It's not sustainable. We can't say that people who make the effort to create written works, to edit them, produce them, and distribute them have no right to make money at it. And if we continue to operate based on such a principle, we will eventually put ourselves, our publishers, our editors, all out of work.
I'm not saying that the current iteration of SOPA is perfect and that it cannot benefit from some tweaking of the rules and penalties. But on the other hand, I doubt very much that the strong opposition being expressed by Wikipedia et al. is due to their concern for our rights of individual expression. They have built themselves upon a shaky edifice where they have gotten the masses to do their work without anyone having to take responsibility for anything. To make changes in this model would require them to rework their entire structure and mode of operation. So they want to scare everyone into thinking that it is the end users who will be threatened with harsh punishments, and lose all of their "freedom"--that's why they shut down for part of a day (they don't dare to shut down for longer than that, since they know they can be replaced so easily). But it's not us little guys who have to rethink our way of doing things. It's the new big boys on the block who are not ready to face up to reality.
It's still the Wild West, but it has to change. The current model is unsustainable.
A. Charles Muller
University of Tokyo
Last modified: Mon Jan 23 16:02:23 JST 2012